July 7, 2020
Given travel’s role in the pandemic and its large carbon footprint, “staycations” look like the best path to recovery of human health and ecological stability.
READING THROUGH THE CITY OF VICTORIA’S recent economic action plan, Victoria 3.0, one might easily get the impression that tourism is not important to the City’s economy. There is barely a mention of it.
It crops up exactly twice. Once in a short highlight of the organization Destination Greater Victoria, and again in reference to the Victoria Conference Centre.
In the Destination Greater Victoria section it’s noted that (normally) the visitor population “contributes $2.3 billion in economic activity to the regional economy, while stimulating more than 24,000 direct jobs and $400 million in local taxes.” The report observes, “In Greater Victoria, the overall visitor economy is comprised of more than four million overnight guests annually.”
This year, however, mid-pandemic, it’s all different. Most of the usual six million tourists are absent. In mid-May, Victoria hotel occupancy was only at 15.5 percent. Revenues of many tourist-reliant businesses are being obliterated. Words like “devastating” and “ominous” are used to describe the impact. A local industry task force estimated in May that 90 percent of the full-time tourism workforce has been laid off and roughly 20,000 jobs lost.
Victoria, especially its downtown area, could be transformed over the next year. It’s not just the obvious businesses like tour operators and souvenir shops, but all the retailers and restaurateurs that will be missing tourists this summer. As will the businesses they in turn supported. Many other businesses will miss the money spent locally by all the former tourism industry employees.
It’s a bleak picture indeed, with no end in sight, and with the possibility for further disruptions due to a second wave of COVID-19 —or other crises. The abrupt plunge in the number of visitors to Victoria underlines the fact that components of tourism are a key factor in the global transmission of disease. It’s also implicated in the climate crisis. How does a community that has become so dependant on tourism adjust to these new realities?
Air travel in January and February quickly spread the novel coronavirus around the globe. Below, airport workers in Korea attempt to disinfect part of an airport terminal.
The high cost of flying
ONE VERY BIG elephant in the room associated with international tourism, even the so-called sustainable version, is its immense carbon footprint, due in large measure to aviation emissions.
According to the Victoria International Airport’s data, about 2 million international travellers arrived in Victoria by plane last year. (Another large group—about 700,000 in 2019—came by cruise ships; more on them later.)
A Guardian analysis shows that individually, flying from Vancouver to Bangkok and back generates about 2,394 kilograms of CO2—more than the average person in 98 countries produces in a year. Even a return flight from Vancouver to New York produces 593 kilograms of CO2 per passenger—about what the average person in 44 countries generates in a full year.
Contrails created by condensation of moisture from jet airplane exhaust. The gases released that contribute to the climate crisis are invisible to the human eye.
Some in the travel industry are aware and concerned, but offer little in the way of real solutions. Destination Greater Victoria has hosted two “Impact: Sustainability Travel & Tourism” conferences in recent years (and is scheduled to hold another in January 2021) on the interplay between tourism and the environment, including climate change. At the 2018 Impact conference, a session on the future of low-emissions travel noted that the International Civil Aviation Organization is committed to carbon neutrality from 2020 onwards. That goal was set in 2010; meanwhile, air travel has increased exponentially. As the proceedings paper notes, “In 2016, 3.8 billion passengers took flight—an increase of 7 percent over the previous year.” By 2036, the numbers flying are expected to double.
How is carbon neutrality to be achieved in light of such numbers? A record of the conference proceedings states: “Improvements to technology and shifting to alternative fuels, and finally through carbon offsets for any remaining emissions.” But with longer-haul air travel there really are no alternative fuels on the horizon. As for fuel efficiency technologies, the paper notes that in 2016 Canadian air carriers improved fuel efficiency by all of 3.2 percent. It concludes: “Requiring that airlines purchase carbon offsets may be one of the simplest and least risky ways to ensure that airlines factor in the cost of emissions when making capacity decisions.”
Offsets, of course, do not reduce emissions or the climate emergencies heading our way.
Tourism’s emissions are not just due to air travel. Research by a team of University of Sydney scientists calculated the direct emissions from air travel and indirect emissions—including from food production, hotel maintenance, and souvenirs—in 160 countries. The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that tourism now accounts for eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
One researcher involved with the study, Dr Arunima Malik, told the New Scientist, “Growth in tourism-related expenditure is a stronger accelerator of emissions than growth in manufacturing, construction or service provision.” If the (pre-COVID) business-as-usual scenario continued, the researchers projected the carbon footprint from tourism could increase to 6.5 gigatonnes by 2025. The report noted, “The rapid increase in tourism demand is effectively outstripping the decarbonization of tourism-related technology.”
Such realities pose a problem for a city like Victoria, which is heavily reliant on tourism for jobs and bringing revenue into the community, yet committed (in theory, at least) to reducing its carbon footprint. The City of Victoria’s Climate Leadership Plan, however, makes virtually no reference to tourism and certainly none at all to those extra-heavy-footed vehicles—air planes and cruise ships—bringing millions of tourists and travellers to the city.
The global tourism study found that the highest emissions were associated with the very type of “high-value” traveller Victoria (and Destination Greater Victoria) is most keen to attract—those from affluent countries. As Dr Malik told the BBC, “When richer people travel they tend to spend more on higher-carbon transportation, food and pursuits.”
Besides the carbon footprint, there are now public health issues to consider. Global travel helped cause the world-wide spread of the coronavirus, resulting in over 550,000 deaths (as of July 7) and a serious, likely years-long recession. While all the big travel industry players are lobbying the federal and provincial governments to relax restrictions, infection disease experts are warning against it. “[Travel] is the one segment of the economy that probably has the greatest potential to derail our ability to stay out of lockdown,” Lauren Lapointe-Shaw, a general internist and clinical epidemiologist at Toronto’s University Health Network, told the Globe and Mail in late June, further noting travel’s “outsized effect on the ability of outbreaks to grow quickly.” It’s not just the risk of spreading a virus on a plane, another medical expert told the Globe, “but the risks that come with travel, such as venturing out and meeting new people.”
While compassion and concrete measures to help tourist-dependent workers are called for, there are, thanks to the climate crisis and pandemic, ethical considerations around long-distance travel in particular.
Coronavirus superspreaders no more: Idled British aircraft parked on runways
The cruise industry: A blessing? Or a curse?
OVER THE LAST TEN YEARS, some Victoria businesses have become increasingly reliant on tourists from cruise ships. It’s not clear how many businesses benefit, but the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA), which operates the cruise ship terminal, claims the cruise industry contributes more than $130 million annually to the regional economy and is responsible for 800 direct and indirect jobs in the area. Given that passengers do not stay in local hotels, and take most meals onboard their ships, it is Downtown retailers and the short-tour guides who will likely miss the cruise ships the most.
Since 2010, cruise ship passengers have increased over 45 percent. This year was expected to bring the most ever: 300 ships with close to 800,000 passengers between April and October.
But after alarming stories of virus-infected ships, chaotic management, detained passengers, and the ensuing worldwide grounding of the industry, will cruising will ever rebound? Should it?
Certainly, the GVHA is counting on increasing cruise ship visits in the years ahead. In April, the organization completed a $6.8-million extension to the mooring dolphin at Pier B—one of the largest capital infrastructure investments in the organization’s history—to allow for newer, larger ships, “ensuring the Victoria Cruise Terminal will remain competitive in the decades to come.”
Ogden Point often saw three cruise ships at a time before this year’s coronavirus pandemic struck
With 70 percent of its approximately $15 million in revenues coming from cruise ships, the GVHA relies on them to fund its other operations—like Ogden Point Breakwater, the Inner Harbour's Lower Causeway, Ship Point, and Fisherman’s Wharf. Without any cruise revenues in 2020, GVHA has laid off 50 percent of its staff, is deferring major capital projects and even maintenance on the other properties it manages.
The wisdom of the GVHA’s emphasis over the years on growing the cruise business is put into question considering the industry’s widely recognized contribution to the climate crisis. Large cruise ships are notoriously carbon-intensive and polluting (of air and water). Though emissions-per-passenger have come down, overall emissions from cruise ships at Ogden Point rose 19.1 percent between 2010 and 2018.
Late last year, GVHA resisted City of Victoria council’s push to have cruise ships use less-polluting electrical shore power when in port. Councillor Jeremy Loveday likely had no idea how prophetic his statement to CBC was last December, when he said: “I think the tourism industry is heading toward a climate reckoning, and we’ll need to adapt very quickly.”
Many ports around the world have required large ships to plug into shore power rather than continuing to run their engines when in port. Synergy Enterprises, a carbon accounting and energy audit firm hired by GVHA, reported in late 2019 that with shore power installed, the terminal would see greenhouse gas emission reductions of 51 percent and 47 percent for other polluting emissions. It noted that “emissions have been increasing since 2010, as the average vessel stays in port longer; total hotelling time almost doubled.” (Synergy measured ship emissions from 4.4 nautical miles outside the terminal.)
To get a clearer idea of just how much one, let alone 300 cruise ships, can pollute when in port, a New York Times article from December 2019 noted: “When not using shore power, a single cruise ship docked for one day can emit as much diesel exhaust as 34,400 idling tractor-trailers, according to an independent analysis verified by the Environmental Protection Agency. When a ship is plugged in, the agency said, its exhaust is nearly eliminated.”
In Seattle, where shore power has been available at some terminals for more than a decade, more conversions are planned. Its Port Authority has described the carbon reductions: “An average cruise ship plugging into shore power at Terminal 91 saves the greenhouse gas equivalent of a typical car driving 30 road trips from Seattle to New York.”
Vancouver has shore power too—since 2009. Over the ensuing years it’s estimated to have reduced greenhouse gases by over 20,000 tonnes, along with removing 600 tonnes of air pollutants.
Given the global move towards mandating that ships use shore power, it’s surprising Victoria, a city priding itself on being green, had not insisted on it sooner than last year. The GVHA had apparently not even thought of it before being called out. CEO Ian Robertson initially stated he wasn’t sure BC Hydro would even have enough capacity. BC Hydro immediately assured that they would have no problem meeting the load.
In February 2020, City Council agreed to give GVHA another 5 years to come up with shore power. The GVHA estimates it will cost $20 million, and will be looking to government and the cruise industry itself to subsidize the improvements. Of course, with every organization feeling pinched after the pandemic, expect resistance to paying for such improvements, including retrofits needed for many ships.
Yet, with a climate crisis unfolding on the heels of the pandemic, insisting that cruise ships use zero-emission shore power while in port seems the very least that needs to happen.
Future directions: go local, go virtual, be smaller
VARIOUS REPORTS AND FORECASTS by Canadian industry analysts provide headspinning statistics and dramatic graphs of the plunge in tourist activity in the early months of 2020. Even under best-case scenarios, the financial picture is dire.
A recent Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC) report states that “without further government investments, 61,000 tourism businesses (57 percent of total) are projected to fail, and 1.66 million tourism sector employees could be laid off (~83 percent of total).”
Such reports also make it clear that we cannot rely on the tourism industry itself to make the profound transformations needed. TIAC wants to see Canada “re-emerge as a stronger, more cost-competitive global tourism competitor.” It makes a host of recommendations. Some, like the government funding of marketing campaigns to entice Canadians to explore Canada, might be compatible with a lower-carbon industry. Others like a postponement of the excise tax on jet fuel, are not.
The federal government has already re-directed $30 million from international tourism marketing to promoting regional travel within Canada. The City and Province could also fund “tourist-in-your-own-town” campaigns, along with more art promotions. Simple things like the City of Victoria’s closure of Government Street to automobiles, and opening up more outdoor spaces to businesses and citizens, also help locals enjoy their city in a low-carbon way.
More concrete long-term help could come in the form of government funding of projects like the redevelopment of the E&N line as an electrified train, ideally that extends further north to Campbell River or beyond. This could be hugely attractive to regional tourists—including from points south in the US, where there are electrified trains already. It could be marketed as an environmentally-friendly “trip of a lifetime,” allowing for a wide variety of side-trips developed by businesses along the route—adventure travel featuring kayaks, sailboats, hiking in Strathcona, forest conservation work, wildlife viewing, and the like; trips for foodies featuring farm stays and vineyards; guided tours for seniors of natural wonders and cultural attractions in electric vans that meet the train. This could keep the hotels and restaurants of the areas hopping as long as the train allowed for lots of layovers along its route. Maybe it’s feasible to have a bike path alongside as well, allowing some of us to do parts of the journey by train and others by bike.
Another important role in lowering the emissions of the tourism industry will be played by a move to virtual activities.
A good case in point is the Victoria Conference Centre. The City of Victoria’s action plan, Victoria 3.0, notes that VCC delegates are the highest-spending segment of out-of-town visitors—the very visitors research shows have the largest carbon footprints. Apparently still stuck in the old paradigm, the report states: “The VCC has the potential to be a greater economic generator through hosting larger conferences and attracting more international audiences. Our current facility only allows us to host one conference at a time. We want to be able to host two, mid-sized conferences concurrently or one large meeting. A significant renovation or rebuild is necessary.”
When asked at an online panel discussion to explain how doubling the capacity of VCC would help put Victoria on a “path to low carbon prosperity”—as is a key goal of the action plan—Mayor Lisa Helps said some conferences could be virtual. Though not mentioned or implied in the report itself, it’s the direction needed. Besides saving on travel emissions, it would allow for a more modest, less carbon-intensive renovation.
Businesses, too, can help lower emissions (and save money) by switching long-distant meetings to teleconferencing. Pre-COVID statistics show that business travellers account for 12 percent of airline passengers.
Even with such virtual conversions, and projects like a new rail line, and re-targeting towards nearby clientele, tourist-dependent businesses will likely need to figure out how to operate in the black with lower revenues. Victoria’s whale-watching industry, for instance, will be especially hard-hit. A recent news story noted that only 10 percent of their clientele is BC-based.
Whale-watching industry players have always prided themselves on their conservation efforts and their ability to inspire love of the animals they showcase. But unless travel is done by kayaks or sailboats (rare in this age of instant gratification), the carbon emissions associated with the industry are very high. While some of the companies boast new fuel efficiencies and carbon offsetting, these do not address the emissions associated with travel to the region.
What might come out of the “creative destruction” of the whale-watching industry? Shifting to non-motorized boats with an even greater emphasis on education about their subjects would certainly help the whales. With their population reduced to only 73, the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) have been largely absent in the Salish Sea all spring, apparently residing in California waters. Their main food source, Chinook salmon, has been so diminished they have to forage longer, and fossil-fuel-powered whale-watching makes that process harder. A study commissioned by the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation Program found that SRKWs lose up to 5.5 hours foraging time each day due to noise and disturbance from whale-watching and commercial vessels, from May to September in the Salish Sea.
Some tourist-focused businesses may need to convert themselves to something else entirely—those in the accommodation sector, for instance. Ingrid Jarrett, CEO and President of the British Columbia Hotel Association (BCHA) stated recently, “With over 400 hotels closed, and more than 62,000 employees laid off in the province, many businesses—some of which rely completely on the summer season—are on the brink of insolvency.”
In Victoria, there is dire need of housing and some hotels and motels are already being transformed to fill this need. Maybe others can be converted into efficient green housing, creating jobs in the process.
Finally, Victorians themselves can rethink their “right” to travel long distances, given the high environmental and public health costs—which are largely born by others. Is it such a sacrifice to embrace “staycations” in which we explore Vancouver Island’s wealth of appealing natural and cultural offerings? When we do travel afar, we must be prepared to pay higher prices and more taxes to offset our emissions.
The “stay home” mantra may have long relevance beyond the pandemic. By foregoing international travel, we not only help out those struggling to stay afloat here, we help keep the world a safer place for everyone. It seems the kind thing to do.
Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus.